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Iran Report: April 19, 1999

19 April 1999, Volume 2, Number 16

IS IRAN ADVOCATING AN INDEPENDENT KOSOVO? As NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia entered their fourth week, the Iranian government officially clarified its position on the crisis in Kosova. Meanwhile, state media continued an approach which blamed the refugees' plight on NATO, while simultaneously emphasizing the refugees' calls for help and for an independent Kosovar state. And Iran continues to provide humanitarian aid to the refugees.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Director-General for Central and North European Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri clarified Iran's stance on the Kosovar crisis on 13 April. He said: "part of the Iranian stance blaming NATO may be close to the stance held by Russia; while part of Iran's stance attacking the Serbs is not accepted by the Russians. This indicates Iran's independent policy." Baqeri went on to say that Iran's stance on the issue "has been distorted by foreign media." Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Safari, said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), that Iran "stresses on the employment of UN facilities in the settlement of the crisis."

"Tehran Times," which is published by a branch of the Islamic Guidance and Culture Ministry, editorialized on 14 April that "instead of resorting to force in a barbaric manner, which is not a solution to the problem but deals a deadly blow to the Muslims, NATO should halt its raids, the warring sides should sit at the negotiating table and start peace talks under the supervision of the United Nations." It also said the crisis was just a pretext for the U.S. "to intervene militarily without any prior approval of the United Nations."

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), whose chief, Ali Larijani, is selected by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has consistently broadcast news in such a way that NATO seems to be the cause of the refugee crisis. For example, Iranian television gave the crisis nine minutes of coverage on 7 April. But mention of the refugees came only after news about Iranian and Organization of Islamic Conference mediation efforts and Belgrade's offer of a cease-fire. The NATO air strikes were shown as the causal factor behind the refugees' plight. On 8 and 10 April, the news focused on the air strikes and barely mentioned the refugees. On 9 April, there was coverage of the air strikes followed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's view that the Kosovar crisis might result in a new cold war. And on 12 April, IRIB covered NATO air strikes, immediately following that with a story about the blocking of a Russian aid convoy. The morning news of 13 April had a 2 1/2 minute report on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and suggestions of UN mediation, accompanied by information about NATO attacks.

By the second news broadcast on 13 April, however, there seemed to be a shift in emphasis. The 3 1/2 minutes on the Kosova crisis had more coverage of refugee issues than before, although this may have been related to the 45 second report in which an Albanian official thanked Iran for its help to the refugees. On 14 April the previous approach to the issue resumed, with a 1 1/2 minute report about U.S. President Bill Clinton's request for more funds to continue the operations over video of the continuing NATO attacks. On 15 April, for the first time, IRIB lead with a refugee story: "a number of Albanian refugees have been killed in the course of NATO air strikes in Kosova."

Also, there are indications that Iran will advocate arming the Kosova Liberation Army as well as an independent Kosova state. On 8 April, for example, the English-language "Iran Daily," which is affiliated with IRNA, published a "Washington Post" editorial which said arming the KLA is "politically and morally justifiable, for the Albanians in Kosovo are currently facing the prospect of social extinction." On 11 April IRNA carried interviews with Kosovar refugees. According to the story: "There is also a consensus among the Kosovars on two things: ... and secondly, NATO bombings must continue until Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic gives in." Albanian Mufti Hafiz Sabri Koci, in a 13 April IRNA interview, "said the Albanian people were very happy with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran." He also said: "The Kosovars must now have an independent state.

Iran's Red Crescent Society has been providing humanitarian assistance. Also, the medical facilities it established in Albania in 1996 are helping the refugees. Ahmad Reza Jalali, director of an Iranian polyclinic in Tirana, said his institution has helped about 500 refugees so far.

Despite these other approaches, some Iranian leadership figures continue to cast the issue in simplistic and traditional terms. Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, in the Qom Friday Prayers on 9 April, which were broadcast by IRIB, sermonized about Kosovo. He said that although "more than one million people have become homeless," neighboring countries are doing nothing. He went on to criticize the West for not helping the Kosovars because it is opposed to Islam. Meshkini then said that the Serbs destroyed 100 mosques, and "people should know that this is America. Even if America is not directly involved in this affair, you can rest assured that it is responsible for even worse things." And at the 16 February Friday Prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati condemned the Serbs, then expressed concern about U.S. intentions. He said: "America is seriously following a policy of carrot and stick. It is planning to devour the world. It is moving towards that objective step by step." (Bill Samii)

CREDITOR FEARS AND LOST OPPORTUNITIES. Ikuro Sugawara, general manager of Japan National Oil Corporation (JNOC), told Reuters on 13 April: "I am not sure Japanese companies can wait until the U.S. government lifts sanctions completely. ... They are thinking seriously of entering the Iranian projects." He was referring to the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which imposes penalties on companies which invest over $20 million in Iran's energy industry.

Korea's Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company announced on 15 April that it had won a $955 million contract to build a natural gas processing plant. The plant will be built on the south coast for TOTAL South Pars, a consortium led by French company TOTAL.

The governments of Japan and of European countries have a direct interest in the revival of the Iranian oil sector, specifically, and the Iranian economy generally, because of Iran's outstanding debts. About $2-3 billion of the $6.9 billion due this year in debt repayments has been rescheduled, but both the Iranian Central Bank and the debtors are wary of divulging precise figures. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the bank's servicing target for this Iranian year (March 1999-March 2000) is around $4.5 billion. Iran probably will go back for further rescheduling, because the rise in oil prices is not expected to hold and Iran's foreign exchange reserves, according to International Monetary Fund estimates, are not sufficient to meet external financing requirements.

The Iranians are not helping themselves, according to a 31 March Reuters analysis. The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), hampered by a lack of experienced negotiators, is still trying to process proposals made last July. Analysts said that even then the proposals must be accepted by "everyone from NIOC engineers to the political establishment."

Such delays are not holding Russia back. Russian Oil Minister Sergei Generalov and his Iranian counterpart, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on projects in oil and gas exploration and development on 14 April, IRNA reported. The MOU covered services, equipment and chemical purchases, cooperation in petrochemical ventures, and construction of storage facilities.

Other countries resent attempts to coerce them, while many American businesses are unhappy about being forced to pass up what they see as opportunities.

In late-March, Canada's Bow Valley and France's Elf Aquitaine signed a $300 million contract for exploitation of the Balal oil field in the Persian Gulf. The French firm has an 85 percent stake in the project. On 17 February, when the contract was first awarded to Bow Valley and Great Britain's Premier Oil, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the application of sanctions would be considered. Premier Oil withdrew from the deal at the last minute, supposedly over a contractual hitch.

When the final deal was announced, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin indicated deep disappointment and great concern. Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman Sean Rowan responded: "We think the Americans are acting extraterritorially and unilaterally." He went on to describe Canada's opposition to ILSA and the imposition of sanctions. Reuters reported that a Foreign Ministry spokesman from France reiterated this theme.

On 9 April, Mobil oil company placed an advertisement in "The Washington Post" urging an easing of sanctions. The advertisement said that sanctions against foreign companies dealing with Iran are ineffective, "cost American companies sales and jobs, and frustrate our allies." It went on to say that the restrictions put U.S. firms "on the sidelines."

In a 14 April interview with Reuters, Atlantic Richfield Company Vice President Don Voelte said his firm bid on two Iranian oil projects based on the lifting of sanctions. Voelte hopes ARCO's technological capabilities are sufficiently attractive that the Iranians will wait, but he realizes that "somebody else can step in our shoes and take the deal from us." (Bill Samii)

ARE THE ELECTION RESULTS REALLY GOING TO BE FINAL NOW? The results of the 26 February council elections will be announced on 24 April, announced Central Election Supervisory Board chief Hojatoleslam Ali Movahedi-Savoji, a conservative. In a letter to Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, Savoji wrote that after the election only his board is eligible to investigate electoral issues, IRNA reported on 14 April. Savoji added that according to the law, there is no time limit for the board to announce its decisions on the authenticity of the elections. He also wrote that some governors and governors general (who are chosen by the Interior Ministry) were uncooperative and created bottlenecks.

The day before, the Interior Ministry had sent a letter to Savoji saying that the rejection of candidates Abdullah Nuri, Said Hajjarian, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Ahmad Hakimipour was "devoid of legal ground and not acceptable." Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh wrote, according to "Imruz" on 13 April, that the council therefore will commence working.

On 11 April all the elected members of the Tehran Council held an informal meeting. Convicted Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi was present, too. The main topic of discussion was mayoral candidates, "Jahan-i Islam" reported on 13 April. The names that were mentioned were Taqizadeh, Safai Farahani, Ardakanian, and Qarazi, but Taqizadeh seemed to be the favorite (first names did not appear in the article).

On 4 April, "Kayhan International" editorialized that selecting a new mayor will be the council's most important task, and it said top candidates are "Hamshahri" editor Mohammad Atrianfar, Tehran Municipality official Qasem Taqizadeh, and Free Trade Zones head Morteza Alviri, all of whom are close to Karbaschi. "Kayhan International" advised against reconsidering Karbaschi, because the city wants "a mayor who will proceed with the policies of modernization but without legal complication and embezzlement charges." In a related issue, "Khordad" reported on 13 April that Karbaschi's appeal is being reconsidered.

The election headquarters of Tehran governorate stated that the Karaj elections are valid because allegations of ballot box tampering could not be proven, "Arya" reported on 14 April. The Zahedan supervisory council reported that 11,000 extra votes were discovered in 13 ballot boxes, according to "Jomhouri-yi Islami" on 14 April. Investigators from Tehran have been dispatched. (Bill Samii)

KADIVAR VERDICT DUE IN A WEEK. The trial of Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar before the Special Court for the Clergy was held on 14-15 April. A verdict is expected within a week, and until then Kadivar must remain in jail. Kadivar is charged with spreading propaganda against the system of the Islamic Republic, spreading fabrications, and causing public anxiety. Kadivar had rejected the Special Court's jurisdiction over his case, as had Iranian legal experts on constitutional grounds. But the presiding judge ruled otherwise.

Kadivar sent an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami in which he requested that he be tried in a judicial and open court in the presence of a jury. "Otherwise," according to the letter reproduced in the daily "Hamshahri" on 10 April, "jail is better for me than what they are asking me to do." Something of a compromise was reached, and representatives from the relatively liberal daily "Salam," the conservative dailies "Jomhuri-yi Islami" and "Resalat." and state radio and television (IRIB) were present. So were some members of Kadivar's immediate family. "Resalat" would later report that the Special Court was very cooperative with the reporters.

Kadivar's lawyer, Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Musavi-Tabrizi, indicated in a 14 April interview with "Arya" that he would attack the unconstitutionality of the Special Court and the treatment of his client. He also said that 90 percent of the religious scholars in Qom and Najafabad have the same religious interpretation his client does.

When the trial started on 15 April, according to "Salam," Kadivar immediately attacked the existence of the Special Court and even its budget, to which the judge responded that such matters were irrelevant to the accusations against Kadivar. Kadivar said the court is "illegal," and the judge countered that "not everybody thinks like you, and they do not have your interpretation of the constitution, ... your interpretation is a personal one."

Salimi said: "You have questioned the republic and Islamic nature of the system's foundations." Kadivar responded that he had not propagandized, he had just expressed himself, which is legal. I expressed my beliefs in an interview with "Khordad," said Kadivar, and in no way can this be interpreted as propaganda against the system. Seemingly in frustration, at one point Salimi said: "Defend yourself, don't describe yourself."

Kadivar compared the case to a battle in which Muawiyah used deception against Imam Ali, "Resalat" reported on 15 April, but the judge said the reference was inappropriate.

According to Attorney General Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ebrahim Niknam, if Kadivar is found guilty of disseminating "slanderous propaganda against the Islamic sovereign state with the motive of disrupting security," he could be imprisoned from three to 12 months. Salimi added that once the sentence is confirmed and the defendant is notified, Kadivar will have the right to appeal. (Bill Samii)

WHEAT UNWANTED AND UNNECESSARY. In mid-March, the U.S. Senate passed a non-binding resolution urging President Bill Clinton to allow the sale of American agricultural goods to Iran. Senators from grain-producing states want to sell $500 million worth of farm products to Iran. Pro-business organizations in the U.S. back the sale as well.

But perhaps American wheat is not wanted or even needed. The Agriculture Ministry said Iran's wheat yield had registered an annual rise of 7.9 percent in the last decade. The 4 April report from IRNA went on to describe Iran's surplus wheat product.

Nor does Iran seem interested in purchasing American grain. The Commerce Ministry refuted reports that it wants to buy American wheat, the daily "Qods" reported in February. The newspaper editorialized that this would be just an entree for American domination through dependency. Besides, "we are now nearing self-sufficiency (as far as wheat is concerned)." Within two years, speculated "Qods," "we will definitely be 100 percent self-sufficient in our wheat and barley production, and from then on, we will be able to become exporters of cereals!"

But other Iranian officials have painted a different picture. On 10 April, Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari said Iran is short 1.2 billion cubic meters of water for farming, IRNA reported. This is supposedly Iran's worst drought in 30 years. Kalantari also said farmland in Ardebil Province has been completely destroyed due to a lack of rainfall. This drought may explain Iranian purchases of German, French, and Australian wheat (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 March 1999). (Bill Samii)

AZERBAIJANI CONCERN ABOUT IRANIAN AZERIS. Political figures in Azerbaijan continue to voice their concern, sometimes in sharp terms, over the situation of Azeris in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But owing to the extreme sensitivity of this issue, Iranian publications almost never discuss ethnic topics.

The most recent cause of Azerbaijani concern is a stream of media reports about the house arrest of Iranian-Azeri academic Mahmoud Ali Chehragani (Johragani) and the arrest of people demonstrating in Tabriz on his behalf. Chehragani was declared ineligible for the February municipal council elections and he was previously banned from parliamentary elections, according to Azerbaijani sources, because he advocates teaching and learning Azeri Turkish. Baku's "Zerkalo" reported on 12 April that Chehragani was beaten up by Armenian youngsters "with the consent of the authorities."

Former Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran Aliyar Safarli, who is linked with the nationalist United Azerbaijan Movement, referred to Chehragani as a "brave son of southern Azerbaijan." Safarli also said in a 9 April interview with Baku's "Azadlyg": "He actively fights for our people's language and culture." Former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, who heads the Committee of Defense of the Rights of Mr. Chehragani, said during a 2 April press conference that by arresting Chehragani, "the Tehran regime wants to give a lesson to others." The Popular Front, which Elchibey also leads, made similar complaints in early-March. The Musavat Party denounced the treatment of Chehragani on 13 April, as did Zakir Mamedov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Azerbaijan on 15 April.

The Association of Victims of Illegal Repression and the Geyrat Party demanded Chehragani's release on 2 April, and they also demanded "an end to the ceaseless tortures and sufferings to which the Azerbaijani Turks have been subjected," "Azadlyg" reported on 2 April. The Democratic Congress, an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition organizations, issued a similar statement, the Turan news agency reported on 25 March. On 18 March, the youth organization of the Movement for Integrity of Azerbaijan picketed the Iranian Embassy in Baku, "AzadInform" reported, protesting Chehragani's situation and the "cruel dispersal of 20,000 Azeri Turks."

A resolution adopted by the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan and the Turkic National Party claims that a state of emergency has been declared in the towns of Urumieh, Zanjan, and Tabriz by the Iranian government, the Turan news agency reported on 9 April. Baku's "Millat" daily claims that the demonstrations have "badly shaken official Tehran."

None of these allegations can be as yet independently confirmed. Also, suggestions that Iranian Azeris seek unification or a greater Azerbaijan are questionable. Although the unemployment rate in Iran is high (11-20 percent), it is at least as high in Azerbaijan (20 percent). And now that predictions of vast Azerbaijani oil wealth seem like a pipe dream in light of low oil prices and a suddenly uneconomic pipeline, the attraction has diminished even more. All the same, Iran's central government seems aware of the potential for unrest in the northwestern, predominantly Azeri provinces.

There is a conscious effort, therefore, to show a substantive interest in the region. When President Mohammad Khatami visited East Azerbaijan Province in November, he spoke of it as the "industrial pole of the country," where agriculture, industry, services and non-oil exports already play a part and tourism and will soon do so. And the opening of the large "Pars Chlorine" factory in Tabriz was publicized by IRNA and attended by several cabinet members. Developments in West Azerbaijan Province got almost as much coverage, although Khatami did not actually go there. Similar announcements by IRNA about factory openings, development projects, and agricultural and industrial output from the region continue.

There also is concern about Iranian intentions in Azerbaijan. Safarli claims Iran has built 2000 mosques in Azerbaijan from which it spreads pro-Iranian ideology. And the clerics sent by Iran "are involved in various instigations here." Furthermore, said Safarli, "more than 10,000 Azerbaijani young men have been taken to Iran without the Azerbaijani state's knowledge." What is even more distressing is that after returning "they do not approve of the policy of the Azerbaijani state." (Bill Samii)